Saturday, April 18, 2015

Five Weeks of Funny Business

I recently completed Feminine Comique, an all female five week course in stand up comedy. The course was created by Cameron Esposito, and she turned it over to local comedic super heroine Kelsie Huff when she moved to LA to go all big time. Kelsie also hosts an all lady comedy show called the Kates, which is more fun than should be allowed by law. (check it!

I’ve been a lover of stand up since I was old enough to watch television. I grew up watching Joan Rivers guest host the Tonight Show, loving Steve Martin on Saturday Night Live, crushing on Freddie Prinze (not the junior version, people. THE ORIGINAL). I spent my allowance on Robin Williams and George Carlin records, listening to them over and over until I could repeat all the jokes by heart. I'm currently consuming a steady diet of Tig Notaro, Amy Schumer, and Aziz Ansari. I’ve always felt a connection with those who used their comedic abilities to get people to listen more closely, to discuss life’s absurdities, to express their concerns and often, divulge their pain.

But I recognize there is a huge difference between appreciating something and actually doing it. It never occurred to me to try stand up until I was looking for a writing challenge recently and I saw Kelsie post a link to her Feminine Comique classes. I know Kelsie from the storytelling scene around town. Not only is she always fucking hilarious, she’s also a damn nice person and I had big faith she would run a great class. Plus it struck me as a completely terrifying idea, and I was in the market to be scared shitless.

Kelsie Huff, comedic shero.

Yeah, sure, I tell stories to sizeable groups of people on a fairly regular basis, so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that I always tell stories that I read off paper. I spend bazillions of hours laboring over every word choice, choosing every spot to pause, crafting the experience. I AM IN NO WAY EXTEMPORANEOUS. The only time I told a story without paper I froze in the middle as I blanked out on my careful memorization. I recovered and kept going after an awkward pause, but in my mind I felt like I was falling down twenty flights of stairs.  So stand up seemed like a pretty big step outside my comfort zone.

Every Tuesday night from 7 pm to 9 pm, we met at Sheil Park, a local community center to learn about the art of joke making. A joke, as defined by Cameron Esposito, is “a shared cultural reference, backed by opinion and comparison.” Kelsie laid down a few rules for us from the get go: that we would go super crazy applauding and cheering each other on during class, even though the real world would not guarantee us that, and that we would not apologize at any time for any reason. Women are conditioned to be apologetic in so many arenas; asking for other people’s time, taking up physical space, daring to find themselves worthy of time and space. So there would be no starting with “I’m sorry if this isn’t funny…” nope. Just do your thing and own that shit.

She also told us at the first class that being successful at stand up involves “failing miserably, in public, without apology, until it’s not a big deal.” Failing miserably? In public? I mean, it makes total sense, you can’t test jokes out on yourself, you need an audience. But this philosophy was a pretty hard right turn from the soft and fluffy storytelling world of “Every one has a story, and they’re all important and valuable!”  Okay, now officially terrified.

The cheering and support part came naturally as all the ladies in the class were really funny. Each of us brought a different energy, different eccentricities, different styles, which made the class continually surprising and fresh and endlessly amusing. Kelsie told us she couldn’t teach us to be funny, as no one can really teach that, but she could teach us joke structure and how to SELL THE SHIT out of our material, which is a major component of stand up success. We learned about rants, and “punching up”, the idea that you should aim your punch lines at perpetrators instead of victims, particularly with edgier material. That kicking someone when they’re down is a cheap shot, and therefore not really funny. We watched a lot of stand up between classes, we talked about jokes that stood out for us and why. We discussed different comedians' body language, also part of making the package work. We learned that making jokes work involves cutting out unnecessary info, which can be a challenge when you’re speaking on the fly. The editing part was a real eye opener for me, stripping down the material to the bare minimum helps the jokes retain more punch. I tend to gravitate towards MORE examples, expanding things in hopes of gaining more understanding with the audience, but more is not more in comedy. It’s reminiscent of Elmore Leonard’s advice to “try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” If it’s not necessary, CUT THAT SHIT.

Also counterintuitive to my usual writing process, I found out quickly that the more I worked on the jokes, THE LESS THEY WORKED. The jokes where I tried really hard to be clever fell flat, the stuff I wrote at the last minute and didn’t overthink landed bigger laughs more often than not. So much for my routine of laboring over my wordplay, this was an exercise in making peace with winging it.

Every week when I did the homework I heard the same voice in my head.

Why are you doing this it will never work you can’t work without your carefully chosen words and your paper crutch you are not fucking funny you will suck you are too old to have this much homework holy shit why are you wasting your time why did you think you could pull this off it’s official, you have totally lost your fucking mind. AGAIN.

Ladies and gentlemen, the voice of the saboteur! It had been awhile, probably since I first started to tell stories. Welcome back, uninvited visitor.

I listened to it and believed it to some degree, but I figured giving that voice too much time or mental real estate was not going to help me to actually get the homework done. FUCK OFF SABOTEUR, I have eight more jokes to write before I can pass out watching House of Cards with a bowl of pasta. And I trusted that the saboteur only shows up when there’s actually something at stake. I’ve lived long enough to know that all of my experiences that involved real growth made me feel less like the star of a motivational poster and more like I was drowning in a fetid sea of WTF HAVE YOU GOTTEN YOURSELF INTO NOW, IDIOT.

But going to class was such a blast, I didn’t worry so much about the graduation show, even though I was unsure how all these random notebook scribbles were going to equate to five minutes worth of jokes that were performance worthy. Kelsie was always immensely supportive, telling us that the grad show always went well, that everyone was able to pull it off and that our objective was to HAVE FUN above all else. I was skeptical, but figured I could always hide under my bed and tell everyone I was exposed to monkeypox at work or something. For sure I was not inviting people. Failing in public would be fine, as long as I didn’t know anyone.

When I went to put together my set for the last class, I only had about two minutes worth of material. TWO MINUTES? When I write stories, I have trouble keeping them to ten minutes or so. But I didn’t panic, I just kept throwing stuff together until I had three minutes, then a little over four minutes.

I took it to class and although I hammered through it in a little over three minutes, it went better than I expected. I worked on it before the show until I didn’t need to look at my notes at all. I invited a handful of close friends, figuring that I should have some people there after all. HOLY SHIT, what if the saboteur was totally WRONG? Let's do this thing.

The night of the show I was scheduled to go first. I felt relatively confident until the house lights went down and then I was struck with a wave of panic. I turned to Kelsie, who was still passing out programs at the front of the house. I said, “Kelsie! I’m really nervous now!” She gestured to the crowd and said, “Who gives a shit what these assholes think about anything?”

Indeed. Instantly I was fine. Genius advice that I will keep in my pocket and use again.

My set went well. I got tongue tied a few times and I had to consult my notes, but none of that stopped me from the main objective, I HAD FUN. Equally satisfying was standing in the back of the theater after, sipping a bourbon rocks out of a jelly jar, watching all of my classmates take the stage and CRUSH IT. They were all SO good, and I was thrilled to hear them get loads of well deserved laughs and cheers.

I have to say that I don’t think I have the drive or the discipline to be constantly crafting jokes and taking them to open mics. That would seriously cut into my pajama jams. I’ll stick to my introverted process of writing my weird stories, sharing them with close friends after laboring over the wordplay. But I am so glad I took the stand up class as I learned so much in five weeks and I was so proud to be involved in the final product and most importantly, I HAD SO MUCH FUN. 

If you’re a lady interested in stand up in Chicago, I highly recommend you check out  If you’re not a lady or would prefer a co-ed stand up experience, check out Or do whatever sounds super scary for you, maybe it’s tango dancing or zip lining or singing acapella or staying up past 11. Any time you can drown out the voice of the saboteur with a loud chorus of I GOT THIS SHIT, I say go for it.

Photo credits - show photos: Chuck Sudo
Kelsie Huff photo:

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